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How can we justify our beliefs? Coherentism So far… We have seen that Empiricism is a way of explaining where our knowledge comes from- experience And that Rationalism is another way- it comes from reason. Some empiricists and rationalists believe that they can justify their beliefs, ie that they can believe a belief to be true, not just a belief. In other words, they say their beliefs are held for good reasons. Foundationalism This is another attempt to justify our beliefs, to be able to say ‘This is a properly held belief- I should believe it.’ We have seen that there are empiricist foundationalists, and rationalist foundationalists. But..! As usual, some people are never satisfied with this. They don’t agree with foundationalism, and think we should look to another way to justify our beliefs. We will look at the theory of COHERENTISM (sometimes called coherence theory) (coherent- logically connected- sticking together- hangs together) Basically what this means is that rather than trying to find a truth (s) that we cannot doubt (foundationalism), we should look to see if our beliefs all ‘fit’ together consistently. Example I receive a letter from someone, but there’s nothing inside. That sounds just like my old Aunt Dotty. But when I check the postmark, I see it comes from Cambridge- and Aunt Dotty lives in Edinburgh. So my idea (hypothesis) that the letter is from her doesn’t fit what I already know- it doesn’t COHERE with my understanding of the world as I know it. But then I remember that my cousin Clark has taken Aunty Dotty to Cambridge for a holiday. Plus, the handwriting on the envelope is like his. I can now say with greater confidence that Aunt Dotty DID send the letter, but she got Clark to write the address and post it. My hypothesis (Aunt Dotty has sent me a letter) now COHERES with my understanding of the world. It ‘fits’, it is logically consistent. Example 2 I hear a noise outside my bedroom window- it sounds like a baby crying!! But that is a strange belief- I live two floors up, and what would a baby be doing outside my window at midnight? My belief is not COHERENT with what I know about the world already. When the morning comes I tell my family, and they inform me that cats often wail like babies. Chillingly enough. My incoherent belief has been replaced by a coherent one- babies don’t climb drain pipes; CATS do. What this shows is that HOLISM coherentism insists that our beliefs are HOLISTIC- this means that they must be seen as a whole, in relation to OTHER beliefs. If they don’t ‘fit’ with all the other beliefs I have, then perhaps the new belief cannot be said to be justified. This is similar to what the catholic Church does when it hears about new miracles; it sends a team of miracle investigators out to assess the claim. One of their criteria for deciding if a miracle is real or not, is whether it contradicts existing Christian belief. If it does, then the miracle is clearly not real, or at least the result of diabolic hi-jinks. It is not COHERENT with existing beliefs. This is also what happened at the Council of Nicea, when the church fathers were deciding what books would be included in the Bible- they looked to see what texts hung together, and which seemed ‘out of place.’ So Coherent beliefs have to be COMPREHENSIVE (covering as much about the world as possible) and CONSISTENT (hanging together in a non- contradictory way) Let’s assess Coherentism does not justify the whole ‘set’ of beliefs itself- it merely claims to justify beliefs based on the idea that they are members of a set. But this doesn’t actually justify the entire set of beliefs. The whole thing might be untrue. Example Lord of the Rings is a trilogy of fantasy novels set in a mythical world called Middle earth. The writer, JRR Tolkein, was an English Language professor at Oxford University. He created entire histories, genealogies and even languages, based on what he knew about our world, language structure etc. These creations were incredibly detailed and consistent. He invented whole worlds that seem so real, lonely people all over the world treat them as if they were true. But they’re not! His world is coherent, consistent, and obeys rules that ‘hang together’. Yet NONE OF IT IS ACTUALLY TRUE. Surely this is a huge flaw with coherentism? It might be INTERNALLY consistent, but does it mean that any beliefs inside it are justified in anything more than a purely theoretical way? Surely you can’t just have millions and millions of sets of beliefs, all contradicting each other, but each set internally consistent? Surely there can only be ONE set of correct beliefs about the world? Therefore Coherentism seems to be an unsatisfactory account of how beliefs are justified. In its defence, it does offer a realistic way of describing how we often view our own beliefs. Sherlock Holmes Batman Eastenders. (Gorblimey) Responses to this criticism F.H Bradley He argued that there WAS only one consistent set of beliefs. He said that whenever we are confronted by a new piece of information, we test it against what we already know- we then decide to accept it or reject it, based on our prior knowledge. Example: I see someone in the street that appears to be an old girlfriend- but I know she left the country years ago, and besides, I spoke to her on the phone a few hours ago. I conclude that it would not be coherent to believe that it is her. My belief is not justified. I believe I was mistaken. Therefore we do not simply accept every and any set of beliefs (the world of Sherlock Holmes, for example) because this contradicts what we already know about the world. For a start, 221b Baker Street was never a residential apartment- it is a bank office. There is no Batman set of beliefs, because no such place as Gotham City exists. Alas. As a sideline, it should be noted that Bradley said that he did not think any belief of the senses (experience) was infallible. AND he did not believe in any infallible beliefs, any Foundationalist beliefs. Odd as it may appear to us, he would claim that it was only PROBABLE that you are hearing or seeing this right now, that you are in a classroom, or revising from this powerpoint in your bedroom. Not CERTAIN Donald Davison He also defended coherentism this way: Imagine you speak English, and you discover a lost tribe of people who speak a strange new language called Glaswegian. How will you ever translate what they are saying? You will have to rely on The Principle Of Charity- the idea that the lost tribe’s ideas are largely true. And that you both share roughly the same beliefs about what is true and what is not. Otherwise you would not be able to find out where you disagree. Even if we extend this principle, all our beliefs might be wrong. What guarantee do we have that our standards (which we assume the Glaswegians have) are true? Imagine an all knowing (omniscient) interpreter. He will also have to extend the same Principle of Charity to us- he will assume that we share common standards of truth about our beliefs. But because he is omniscient, everything he knows is true, so his standards of truth could not be mistaken. And if his are true, then ours must be roughly, and therefore so must the Glaswegians. Of course, we can still be mistaken about individual beliefs, but the whole idea of a coherent set of beliefs is justified…and there can be only one.
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